In this highly materialist argument, to what degree does Woolf leave open the possibility that an individual genius may rise above such limiting circumstances as poverty or lack of education?
Woolf concedes, by means of examples like that of John Keats, that such cases are possible. But their possibility is more or less irrelevant to her argument, which in its sociological aspect concerns itself with probabilities and statistical "facts." That the odds are against an aspiring author who has no income is sufficient for Woolf's contention. In Woolf's view all geniuses, by definition, manage to transcend their own particularities insofar as their work achieves incandescence.
How would you describe the form of this essay? Is it an argument? If so, how does it differ from more conventional forms of argumentation, and to what effect?
Woolf wants to avoid the rigidly logical structure of most academic argumentation, which she rejects for its blind self-assurance and unspoken biases. Her ideal of argumentative truth is one that does not appeal just to "objective" facts. She is highly conscious of the subtleties of meaning that are already implicit in what we call facts, and the way their values and meanings can change over time. Woolf chooses to give her interpretations through a shadowy persona so that she can handle her topic ironically and introduce surprises and twists to the story without seeming disingenuous. She counterbalances this narrative manipulation by telling her audience exactly what she proposes to do. The style of the essay is not meant to be a trick or a self-protective disavowal of the ideas it contains, but rather a means of dramatizing those ideas to greater effect. Her argument is not a logical progression, but rather a gradual unfolding, by indirection and accident, of a complex of ideas that casts the conventional landscape of women's literature in a new light.
Woolf claims that the particular social realities in which women live create distinctively female values and outlooks. Does she think this is a good thing or a bad thing?
Political, legal, and social oppression are never "good things." But given that historical reality, Woolf thinks that cultural diversity is something to be embraced and cultivated. Even had women not been subjugated for centuries, differences in experiences would have generate different outlook, and our cultural and literary richness depends on such differences. Engagement with difference allows us to see ourselves, not just in the "mirrors" where we project our own images, but from behind—that spot on the back of the skull that no mirror can reach and only another person can reveal to us.